Monday, March 23, 2015

Duck in Nice

Yeah, I know, I stopped writing again.  Blogging sucks, I hate having my writing habits public.  It's like posting your weight on Facebook every day.

We have been in the south of France for a week.  Carol had a meeting in Nice, so we took the train down from Paris.  Nice is a lovely city, one of those cities in the south that feels as Italian as it does French.  I don't think I'll write that much about the city itself, I want to get to a couple of good meals.  But it is one of those beach cities built around a bay, with a beach all around, and kind of a boardwalk and then behind that a circle of hotels.  Except like a lot of seaside cities, at some point someone had the idiotic idea to put the main through-street in between the hotels and the beach.  Probably it just happened slowly, but now to get to the water you have to risk your life getting across the main drag.  By now I don't know that there is anything that could be done about it.

We had a couple of very memorable meals there.  The first was at a place called La Route du Miam.  Miam is the French word for Yummy.  It was a bit of a walk back from where we were staying a few blocks from the water, back behind the train station, in a kind of scruffy part of the city.  One thing about southern French cities is that they still have blocks where you don't feel entirely comfortable.  Paris is pretty much like Manhattan these days, it is hard to find anyplace that isn't thoroughly gentrified, I never feel as though I am someplace I shouldn't be.

The restaurant itself is a completely plain storefront, inside it is tiny with a few tables and a tiny open kitchen behind an opening in the wall in back.  We went in and say down, the woman who ran the front of the house hustled over and seated us.  At first she was a little off-putting, with a loud voice and her hair all mussed up, she kept pulling it back out of her face as she talked.  She said, this is a specialized restaurant, we serve southwestern French food here, it is in a particular style, so just relax and I'll tell you what you are eating.  She explained that she wasn't from the southwest herself, but her husband, who worked the kitchen was from the Southwest, they had been married for thirty years, so she know how it worked.

There was little menu on a blackboard, but really it was all about duck.  In this style, she said, there was no first and second course, it all came on a single plate.  There were two kinds of duck available, a wild duck that is shot by hunters and only available certain times of year, and a domesticated duck that had been crossed with the wild one.  Most couples, she said, got one of each, so that was it.

It was kind of quiet when we got there, but it filled up quickly and before long Monsieur in the tiny little kitchen (I got a "tour" later.  Maybe 5 by 10, two burners and a little electric convection oven) was hustling around.  I'll describe the Chef in a minute.  It took a while because there were a couple of people ahead of us, but soon our food arrived.  One plate each, with a half a duck all in one piece, a huge mound of home fries cooked in duck fat, a big spoonful of bread stuffing from the duck, and a slab of foie gras on a piece of bread.  Absolutely no doubt the best duck I have ever had.  Crispy skin covered in a peppery glaze, still firm but falling off the bone.  It was hard to carve the bird without pushing the potatoes off the plate.  The stuffing was dark and salty.  But what the guy really took pride in was the foie gras.  I find that when I tell French people, especially men, that I like to cook, they often ask, how do I cook foie gras?  The answer is I don't, I just open a can.  I'm not sure I get the subtleties of cooking the stuff.  But when it is good it is like slightly meaty butter, creamy and melting on your tongue, with just enough liver taste to keep it from just being butter, without any innardy flavor at all.  My arteries are still reeling.

Once everybody in the place was served it was time for the Chef, Jean Michel I think, to relax.  He turned up the radio and cracked a Heineken, sidled out into the room to chat.  He has a big belly and was sweating like he had just unloaded a truck.  The radio, like it seems every radio in a French restaurant, was playing American oldies, and when "Mellow Yellow" came on he was dancing around the room singing "Quite rightly" in a bad English accent.

Eventually it was just us in the restaurant and we got to chatting with Jean Michel and his wife.  He had worked for many years for wealthy people on an estate in the Southwest where he grew up, and this one-plate style of duck eating was what they had done in that region.  We talked about the usual things, mostly what kind of French cuisine we liked the best. Got the tour of the kitchen, which involved standing in one spot and looking at it.  It seems completely impossible that he fed maybe fifteen people in two hours from that tiny space.

Finally when it was time to leave there was a lot of talk about how we had to come back, etc etc.  We kissed Madame on both cheeks in the French style, and Carol did the same with Jean Michel.  I stuck out my hand, as I do with French men, and Jean Michel rolled his eyes and laughed.  No, that will not do, Monsieur, he said, and I finally did it, two big sweaty scruffy kisses on each cheek.  A funny thing about French people is that they kiss like crazy-- you often kiss people the very first time you meet them-- but they are completely freaked out by American style hugging.  Anyway I think that was my first experience of cheek to cheek man-kissing, with some sweaty French chef I'll never see again.

Really fun.  I find myself wondering how much of it is a performance for the tourist clients, and I actually don't think it is.  Obviously we weren't the first Americans to have a great time there, hang out and get a kiss goodnight, but I think the pleasure they took in making food for people who enjoyed it was completely sincere.  More than anything it reminds me to enjoy what I do.  Write my boring psychology with a little joy and enthusiasm, leave people feeling like I gave them something special.

Looks like only one meal is going to make it into this post.  I think we are going to have some rainy time coming up, so I'll try to write about the (delicious but less scenic) other one tomorrow.